The royal inscriptions produced by the Achaemenids stand out due to their monumental and multilingual presentation. While Aramaic emerges as the principal language of the Empire's administration, royal inscriptions are typically presented in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, all written in Cuneiform. Vessel inscriptions occasionally also feature a specifically Egyptian version of their text rendered in Hieroglyphs. From the perspective of people living in modern nation states with only a single official language this may seem strange and merit explanation.The following sections briefly discuss the different languages used in the royal inscriptions of the Persian Empire and offer some thoughts on how to assess the significance of this multilingual, official communication.

Old Persian

Extant in writing primarily on royal inscriptions of the Achaemenids, this Old Iranian language is thought to have been created as a written language precisely for the royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, i.e. by Darius I, although there is some indication that the process had begun earlier. However, the Persepolis Fortification Archive has also revealed the language's occasional use for administrative purposes and it was certainly not confined to use on stone and in monumental contexts. Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that it, unlike the Aramaic used by the imperial administration, was not generally considered a language of practical, imperial use.

That being said, it is important to bear in mind that Old Persian, though not particularly common in written form, was probably spoken in a variety of dialects in Iran, the population of which may be imagined as multilingual, especially among the literate. As the tongue of the Achaemenid elite, it was also the natural choice of language for imperial proclamations, which explains why the original version of almost all Achaemenid royal inscriptions is in Old Persian.

Over the course of the Empire's history, Old Persian naturally changed, as does any language over time. Especially under Artaxerxes II and III, one thus encounters "non-standard" forms as "symptoms" of this gradual tranformation into Middle Persian, which is attested from the Sassanian Empire and the predecessor of modern Persian.


The Elamite language had been written in cuneiform script in western and southern Iran since at least 2200 BCE, though there is some evidence for Proto-Elamite from the early third millennium. Achaemenid Elamite is the last documented form of this language and the best understood, in no small part due to the inscriptions presented in this project. The archival material discovered at Persepolis, which is largely in Elamite, further makes this form of the language the best documented, though Elamite had by this time absorbed Iranian influences in both structure and vocabulary. Nevertheless, Elamite is still imperfectly understood, with many matters of grammar and lexicon continuing to be debated.

Why did Elamite become the second language of the royal inscriptions? It was the language of Susiana and Fars, two of the earliest territories subjected to Achaemenid (or Teispid) rule. These areas also possessed preexisting and sophisticated administrative structures that made use of Elamite. The continuity of these structures ensured that this language held a privileged position especially in the early Achamenid Empire. Linguistic analysis has demonstrated that the scribes of the archival material probably mainly spoke or used Elamite only as a second language, further highlighting the significance of the language in the Achaemenid heartland (Henkelman 2015, 291).


Despite Aramaic being the most significant administrative language for the administration of the Empire as a whole, the royal inscriptions make use of the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian for their trilingual versions. While there may have been a certain satisfying aesthetic symmetry in using three languages written in cuneiform, the more significant reasons for this choice are historical.

Not only was the conquest of Babylon perhaps Cyrus II.'s most significant achievement, but Akkadian was also a language with a long imperial pedigree in Mesopotamia. It carried cultural prestige as a language of learning and provided a link between the Persians' new imperial ambitions and not only the more recent Neobabylonian and Neoassyrian Empires, but also to the more distant past. Darius I, to whom the introduction of the trilingual template must probably be attributed, further sought to draw upon as many sources of legitimacy as he could, including models familiar from Neoassyrian kings, such as Naram-Sin, and Neobabylonian kings, such as Nabopolassar (Waters 2014, 73-75).


Occuring only on the quadrilingual vessel inscriptions, Hieroglyphic Egyptian was apparently employed only on mobile objects deriving from or intended for an Egyptian context.

Multilingual communication

In Xenophon's construction of an ideal imperial state, he remarks that his protagonist, Cyrus the Great, was able to rule the known world despite not knowing the languages of his subjects (Xen. Cyrop. 1.1). In the light of the multilingual royal inscriptions, this statement appears to miss the point. Ethnicity, or the construction of communities of peoples for the purpose of ordering the world, hinges on language as one of its most important markers. The multilingual self-presentation of the rulers of the Persian Empire vibes with the very overt emphasis on the Empire's multi-ethnic structure. Even if the king as an individual did not have the linguistic skills to command his Empire, the elites and administrative personnel that ran the Empire will have been multilingual or at least able to effortlessly move within such an environment and process information in different languages. And of course interpreters were a normal part of courts at all levels of the Empire.

Darius I' assertion that the text of Bisutun was circulated to the people of the Empire in their respective languages (DB §70), finally reveals the Empire's ability (and need) to speak to its constituent parts in their own tongues. The observable multilingualism of the Persian Empire was not only an inescapable local reality and thus also administrative necessity, but also an integral part of the Empire's cohesive ideal. Every ethnic unit was a valued, contributing part of the whole, and the languages chosen for the royal inscriptions do their part to communicate this plurality in unity.


Schmitt, Rüdiger (2008) "Old Persian", in Roger D. Woodard, The Ancient Languages of Asia and the Americas, Cambridge University Press, 76–100.

Skjærvø, Prods Oktor (2005), An Introduction to Old Persian (2nd ed.), Cambridge, MA: Harvard Download []

Stolper, Matthew W. and Jan Tavernier (1995), "From the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, 1: An Old Persian Administrative Tablet from the Persepolis Fortification", Arta, 2007:1, Paris: []

Vallat, Francois (1977), Corpus des inscriptions royales en elamite achemenide, These Universite de la Sorbonne, s.l. Paris.

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Languages', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

Back to top ^^
© ARIo, 2016-. ARIo is based at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Historisches Seminar (LMU Munich, History Department) - Alexander von Humboldt Chair for Ancient History of the Near and Middle East. Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 [] license, 2007-14.
Oracc uses cookies only to collect Google Analytics data. Read more here []; see the stats here []; opt out here.